Tag Archive | "Quirino Cristiani"

Argentine Cinema: An Animated Voyage


Animated film might not be the first thing that springs to mind when someone asks you about Argentina’s achievements: tango – yes, animated film – no. It might surprise you to know, then, that the first ever feature-length animated film was in fact produced in 1917 by a young Italian émigré to Argentina.

In the canon of cinematic achievements, with particular regard to animated film, Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, released in 1937, is most often cited and indeed regarded as the father of feature-length animated film. Quirino Cristiani, however, beat Disney to it by twenty years with ‘El apóstol’ (The Apostle). A further six years prior to the release of Snow White, Cristiani had pulled off yet another coup; his second feature-length animated film, Peludópolis in 1931, was the first of its kind to use synchronised sound.

El Mono Relojero by Quirino Cristiani

El Mono Relojero by Quirino Cristiani

In an unfortunate turn of events, both films were destroyed in fires, which may help to explain why this ground-breaking pioneer in cinema has all but fallen into oblivion. Yet for a new generation of Argentine animators driving a rebirth of the genre, Cristiani’s contribution remains significant.

Origins

Quirino Cristiani was born on the 2nd July, 1896, in the Italian village of Santa Guiletta. His father, Luigi Cristiani was a municipal clerk and his mother, Adele Martinotti, was a dedicated housewife and mother of four sons. When his father lost his job in 1900, he decided the family should relocate to the Americas, and they settled in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires. Growing up in the old port city, the young Cristiani came to see himself primarily as a porteño and secondly as an Argentine. The buzzing capital city was at the centre of the country’s changing political landscape, and would provide Cristiani with the inspiration for ‘El apóstol’.

The national elections of 1916 brought about an end to the longstanding traditional ruling Conservative party, and ushered in a new political era under the Radical Party leader of Hipólito Yrigoyen. His presidency was accompanied by a widespread reforms and unprecedented freedom of the press. Politics, a wildly popular topic, spawned numerous cartoons and satirical comic strips.

At his time, Cristiani had found work at various newspapers and put his graphics skills to practice creating skillful newsreels and comic strips. The sharp wit and insight he displayed as a newspaper illustrator would mark the tone in his revolutionary feature length animated film.

The new and freer press soon turned against the president and he became the target of their political satire which mockingly referred to him as “el peludo” or “unkempt” in reference to both his appearance and political style, accusing him of having replaced one set of corrupt leaders with another. This regulatory backlash would later inform Cristiani’s films, as would the prolific influence of another Italian émigré, Federico Valle.

A cameraman and documentary filmmaker, Valle had worked for the likes of Lumière Brothers and the Urban Trading Co and is thought to be the first person to employ aerial cinematography in Rome in 1909. Although he worked as a producer in Argentina, his main passion was for newsreel. The two men, prompted by the novel culture of political satire and inflected with compatible passions, decided to team up, Valle including Cristiani’s cartoons in his newsreel.

Valle was the first to produce a weekly Argentine newsreel, called “Actualidades Valle” which would debut in cinemas every Thursday. Although Valle was not overly interested in politics and satire, a savvy director, he came to realise their importance to the Argentine population and hired Cristiani to come up with a satirical political cartoon strip to be featured at the end of each of his newsreels. To help the young artist make the transition from static images to the rubric of cinema, Valle leant him a book by French cartoonist and animator, Emile Cohl, dubbed “Les Allumettes Animées” (1908).

In response, Cristiani came up with a revolutionary new technique: cardboard cut outs. Although by today’s standards this may seem primitive, it was a technique that was so successful that he later patented it. His studio was also anything but glamorous. The terrace of his Buenos Aires house was converted into his workspace from which he shot the film frame by frame using only the sun as his light source.

Following the success of Cristiani’s contribution to Valle’s newsreels and the highly positive reaction of the audiences, the duo set about undertaking an even more ambitious project: the first ever feature length animated film, whose lead character would be none other than the president himself.

El Apóstol (1917)

A still from‘El Apóstol’

A still from‘El Apóstol’

The film was played for the first time in cinemas in November 1917 and was met with critical acclaim. The newspaper Crítica described it as “magnificent”, whilst La Razon corroborated, heralding it as, “a graphic work that reveals enormous labour, patience and even genius”.

A political satire, the film depicted the new president, Hipólito Yrigoyen, aspiring to bring about morality to a sin-ridden and corrupt Buenos Aires. To do so, Yrigoyen ascends into the heavens where the Roman God Jupiter lends him some thunderbolts to achieve his aims. Thunderbolts rain down on the city from above in an attempt to purge it of evil.

The work, which took a year to complete, lasted an hour and ten minutes and is said to have been made up of a total of 58,000 drawings (or frames). Unfortunately for Cristiani however, Valle’s hiring of the famous humorous cartoonist Diógenes Taborda, also known as “El Mono” (the monkey) meant that he received very little, if any, credit for the film. The press releases and credits recognised Taborda over Cristiani, failing to properly knowledge Cristiani’s overwhelming contribution to cinema. Thus the producer and not the creator was written into the annals of cinematic history.

Peludópolis (1931)

Following the reelection of Hipólito Yrigoyen in 1928, Cristiani set about a third and influential undertaking to create a feature-length animated film with sound. As with his first film, he once again found political satire as an appropriate vehicle for his film.

The title of the film was a thinly veiled reference to the president’s nickname “el peludo”, and it was set in the Kingdom of an increasingly senile, weakening, and corrupt president. A year before its premier on September 16th, 1931, however, the country was shaken by a military coup d’état.

The film was not a success. Initially envisaged as biting political satire, the events of the military coup rendered his film inappropriate: audiences were not disposed to laugh at such a highly charged, sensitive subject despite Cristiani’s revisions of the film to please both the audience and the new de facto regime.

Tellingly, the film’s economic failure almost bankrupted the now 35 year-old Cristiani. Essentially, he was unable to compete with the likes of Walt Disney with its colour graphics, technical precision, and commercial success.

Commercial failings aside, the film once more made use of articulated characters cut out from cardboard, a technique he had now perfected, and included, most importantly, sound. He used a disk recording system to which the dialogue was saved, and even included a few songs.

The Italian émigré may not have achieved the dizzying heights of success that Disney reached (he was even offered a job by the man himself in 1941 but turned it down), but his contributions to cinema nevertheless assure him a well deserved place in the cinematic landscape of the past upon which many successful venture have been launched.

Looking Forward

With two firsts under its belt, the question now being considered is whether or not Argentina, and indeed Latin America in general, could become a leading producer of animated film, enough so perhaps to rival the likes of Pixar?

In the 2012 International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, of 27 works in the animated film section, seven were Argentine. Animated film as a genre has developed exponentially since its humble origins in the Italian artisan, and the film fodder has moved from heavyweight political satire to light-hearted children’s entertainment.

Weta Digitial, the New Zealand studio of celebrated filmmaker Peter Jackson, is the accepted gold standard in visual effects and film production, and one to which Argentina’s own national treasure, director Juan José Campanella, aspires to.

His upcoming 3D blockbuster, “Metegol”, the first of its kind to be produced in Latin America, hopes to bring the region’s animated cinema to international audiences, following in the footsteps of his incredibly successful 2010 film, ‘El secreto de sus ojos’, which won an Academy Award for best foreign film.

Metegol

Metegol

According to critically-acclaimed Argentine animated film producer Juan Pablo Zamarella, the current upturn in animated film production is due in part to the fact that it is moderately cheaper to produce such films here, and, because, in his words, “Argentines are like Victorinox (the Swiss Army knife): they can do animation, they can edit, they can produce. It’s very common which is generally surprising to Americans and Europeans, and for that reason we are highly valued”.

These unique skills have translated into a “spontaneous phenomenon” whereby there are more and more people producing animated films despite the high cost and noticeable lack of state funding. Zaramella explains that, “at the moment, there are lots of people producing short films who are wining lots of awards at international film festivals”. A case in point, his most recent short film, “Luminaris” has, to date, won over 200 international prizes and was pre-selected for the Oscars.

His success, and indeed the success of his fellow animators, has contributed to the boom. “It is very unlikely that a director will want to risk investing in animated film – unless he sees that it is successful”, says Zaramella. This self-reinforcing concept is fuelling the growth a new generation of hopefuls.

Campanella’s foray into animated film marks an important step in the development and expansion of animated film for Argentina, and indeed the international community it hopes to reach. ‘Becho lo Bianco’, a member of the CanCan Club and one of its principal animators, is currently working on the films credits. He enthuses that that films has, “a very high level of animation” and that Campanella “knows how to tell a story and how to tell it well”. It’s success, believes Zaramella, would “set a precedent for Argentina”.

Another celebrated animator, Santiago Bou, whose 2008 short film ‘The Employment’ won over 100 international awards and made it into 190 film festival official selections, agreed that ‘Metegol’ might help to raise Argentina’s profile, but offered a more philosophical point of view.

To his mind, despite being a “great step for the country, the film emulates “a market which is not its own”. This, he believes, may mean that it might not succeed in a international context, since it is “conforming to a code which is not its own – its Pixar’s”.

Perhaps the question then ought not to be will Argentina be able to rival the success of Pixar, but whether, as Bou suggests, it will be able to find “its own language” for a genre that started here almost a century ago.

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